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JSTOR helps people discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please contact email@example.com. THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY FEBRUARY, 1920 THE TERMITODOXA, OR BIOLOGY AND SOCIETY 1 By Professor WILLIAM MORTON WHEELER BUSSEY INSTITUTION, HARVARD UNIVERSITY JUST before the World War we seemed to be on the verge of startling revelations in animal behavior. " Rolf," the Ayrdale terrier of Mannheim, was writing affectionate letters to Professor William Mackenzie of Genoa, and the Elberfeld stallions were easily solving such problems in mental arith- metic as extracting the cube root of 12,167, to the discomfiture of certain German professors, who had never been able to detect similar signs of intelligence in their students. The possibilities of animal correspondence struck me as so promis- ing that I longed to dispatch letters and questionnaires to all the unusual insects of my acquaintance. But dismayed at the thought of the quantity of mail that might reach me, especially from the many insects that have been misrepresented by the taxonomists or maltreated by the economic entomologists, I decided to proceed with caution and to confine myself at first to a single letter to the most wonderful of all insects, the queen of the West African Termes bellicosus. During the autumn of 1915 my friend, Mr. George Schwab, missionary to the Kamerun, kindly undertook to deliver my communication to a populous termitarium of this species in his back yard in the village of Okani Olinga. He subsequently wrote me that my constant occupation with the ants must have blinded me to the fact that the termitarium, unlike the formicarium, contains a king as well as a queen, but that the bellicosus king was so accustomed to being overlooked, even by his own offspring, that he not only pardoned my discourtesy but condescended to 1 Read at the Symposium of The American Society of Naturalists, Princeton Meeting, Dec. 30th, 1919. 114 THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY answer my letter. Mr. Schwab embarked for Boston in 1917. Off the coast of Sierra Leone his steamer was shelled by a German submarine camouflaged as a small boat in distress, but succeeded in escaping and what would have been another atrocity, the loss of the king's letter, was averted. It runs as follows : Dear Sir: Your communication addressed to my most glori- ously physogastric consort, was duly received. Her majesty, being extremely busy with oviposition — she has laid an egg every three minutes for the past four years — and fearing that an interruption of even twenty minutes might seriously upset the exquisitely balanced routine of the termitarium, has re- quested me to acknowledge your expression of anxiety con- cerning the condition of the society in which you are living and to answer your query as to how we termites, to quote your own words, " managed to organize a society which, if we accept Professor Barrell's recent estimates of geological time, based on the decomposition of radium, has not only existed but flourished for a period of at least a hundred million years." I answer your question the more gladly, because the history of our society has long been with me a favorite topic of study. As you know, the conditions under which I live are most con- ducive to sustained research. I am carefully fed, have all the leisure in the world and the royal chamber is not only kept absolutely dark and at a constant and agreeable temperature even during the hottest days of the Ethiopian summer, but free from all noises except the gentle rhythmic dropping of her majesty's eggs and the soft footfalls of the workers on the cement floor as they carry away the germs of future popula- tions to the royal nurseries. And you will not wonder at my knowledge of some of the peculiarities of your society when I tell you that in my youth I belonged to a colony that devoured and digested a well-selected library belonging to a learned mis- sionary after he had himself succumbed to the appetite of one of the fiercest tribes of the Kamerun. If I extol the splendid solutions of sociological problems by my remote ancestors, I refrain from suggesting that your society would do well to imitate them too closely. This, indeed, would be impossible. I believe, nevertheless, that you may be interested in my re- marks, for, though larger and more versatile, you and your fellow human beings are after all only animals like myself. According to tradition our ancestors were descended in early Cretaceous times from certain kind-hearted old cock- roaches that lived in logs and fed on rotten wood and mud. THE TERMITODOXA H5 Their progeny, the aboriginal termites, although at first con- fined to this apparently unpromising diet, made two important discoveries. First, they chanced to pick up a miscellaneous assortment of Protozoa and Bacteria and adopted them as an intestinal fauna and flora, because they were able to render the rotten wood and mud more easily digestible. The second discovery, more important but quite as incidental, was nothing less than society. Our ancestors, like other solitary insects, originally set their offspring adrift to shift for themselves as soon as they hatched, but it was found that the fatty dermal secretions, or exudates of the young, were a delicious food and that the parents could reciprocate with similar exudates as well as with regurgitated, predigested cellulose. Thenceforth par- ents and offspring no longer lived apart, for an elaborate ex- change of exudates, veritable social hormones, was developed, which, continually circulating through the community, bound all its individuals together in one blissful, indissoluble, syn- trophic whole, satisfied to make the comminution and digestion of wood and mud the serious occupation of existence, but the swapping of exudates the delight of every leisure moment. It may be said, therefore, that our society did not arise, like yours, from a combination of selfish predatism and parasitism but from a cooperative mutualism, or symbiosis. In other words, our ancestors did not start society because they thought the> loved one another, but they loved one another because they were so sweet, and society supervened as a necessary and un- foreseen by-product. You will admit that no society could have embarked on its career through the ages with more brilliant prospects. The world was full of rotten wood and mud and no laws interfered with distilling and imbibing the social hormones. But in the Midcretaceous our ancestors struck a snag. Not only had all the members of society begun to reproduce in the wildest and most unregulated manner, but their behavior toward one another had undergone a deterioration most shocking to behold. The priests, pedagogues, politicians and journalists having bored their way up to the highest strata of the society under- took to influence or control all the activities of its members. The priests tried to convince the people that if they would only give up indulging in the social hormones and confine themselves to a diet of pure mud, they would in a future life eat nothing but rose-wood and mahogany, and the pedagogues insisted that every young termite must thoroughly saturate himself with the culture and languages of the Upper Carboniferous cockroaches. 116 THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY Some suspected that the main value of this form of education lay in intensifying and modulating the stridulatory powers, but for several thousand years most termites implicitly believed that ability to stridulate, both copiously and sonorously, was an infallible indication of brain-power. The politicians and the journalists — well, were it not that profanity has been con- sidered to be very bad form in termite society since the Miocene, I might make a few comments on their activities. Suffice it to say that they consumed even more cellulose than the priests and pedagogues and secreted such a quantity of buncombe and flapdoodle that they well nigh asphyxiated the whole termi- tarium. Meanwhile in the very foundations of the common- wealth anarchists, syndicalists, I. W. W. and bolsheviki were busy boring holes and filling them with dynamite, while the remainder of society was largely composed of profiteers, grafters, shysters, drug-fiends and criminals of all sizes inter- spersed with beautifully graduated series of wowsers, morons, feeble-minded, idiots and insane. [At this point the king has introduced a rather trivial note on the word " wowser." This word, he says, was first employed by the termites of Australia but later adopted by the human inhabitants of that continent, to designate an individual who makes a business of taking the joy out of life, one who delights in pouring cold water into his own and especially into other peoples' soup. The term appears to be onomatopoeic to judge from a remark by one of our postcretaceous philologists who asserts that "whenever the wowser saw termites dancing, swearing, flirting, smoking or over-indulging in the social hormones, he sat up on his hind legs, looked very solemn, swelled out his abdomen and said Wow!"] To such depths, my dear sir, the letter continues, had termite society fallen in the Midcretaceous. The few sane termites still extant were on the point of giving up social life altogether and of returning to the solitary habits of the Palseodictyoptera, but a king, Wuf-wuf IV., of the 529th dynasty, succeeded in initiating those reforms which led our ancestors to complete the most highly integrated social organization on the planet. He has aroused the enthusiastic admiration and emulation of every sovereign down to the present time. I can best describe him by saying that in his serious moments he displayed the statesmanship of a Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Solon and Pericles rolled into one and that in his moments of relaxation he was a delightful blend of Aristophanes, Lucian, Kabelais, Anatole France and Bernard Shaw. This king had the happy THE TERMITODOXA 117 thought to refer the problems of social reform to the biologists. They were unfortunately few in number and difficult to find, because each was sitting in his hole in some remote corner of the termitarium, boring away in blissful ignorance of the de- pravity of the society to which he belonged. In obedience to the king's request, however, they were finally rounded up and persuaded to meet together annually just after the winter sols- tice for the purpose of stridulating about the relations of biol- ogy to society. After doing this for ten million years they adopted a program as elegant as it was drastic for the regen- eration of termite society, and during the remaining fifteen million years of the Cretaceous they succeeded in putting their plan into operation. I can give you only the baldest outline of this extraordinary achievement. Our ancient biological reformers started with the assump- tion that a termite society could not be a success unless it was constructed on the plan of a superorganism, and that such a superorganism must necessarily conform to the fundamental laws of the individual organism. As in the case of the indi- vidual, its success would have to depend on the adequate solu- tion of the three basic problems of nutrition, reproduction and protection. It was evident, moreover, that these problems could not be solved without a physiological division of labor among the individuals composing the society, and this, of course, implied the development of classes, or castes. Termite society was therefore divided into three distinct castes, accord- ing to the three fundamental organismal needs and functions, the workers being primarily nutritive, the soldiers defensive and the royal couple reproductive. Very fortunately our earliest social ancestors had not imitated our deadly enemies, the ants, who went crazy in the early Cretaceous on the subject of parthenogenesis and developed a militant suffragette type of society, but insisted on an equal representation of both sexes in all the social activities. Our society is therefore ambisexual throughout, so that, unlike the ants, we have male as well as female soldiers and workers. It was early decided that these two castes should be forbidden to grow wings or reproduce and that the royal caste should be relieved from all the labor of securing food and defending the termitarium in order to de- vote all its energies to reproduction. The carrying out of this scheme yielded at least two great advantages : first, the size of the population could be automatically regulated to correspond with the food-supply, and second, the production of perfect off- spring was greatly facilitated. 118 THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY During the late Cretaceous period of which I am writing our practical geneticists, in obedience to a general demand for a more varied diet, made two important contributions to our social life. The plant breeders found that what was left of the comminuted wood after its passage through the intestines of the worker termites could be built up in the form of elaborate sponge-like structures and utilized as gardens for the growth of mushrooms. Cultivation was later restricted to a few selected varieties of mushrooms which the biochemists had found to contain vitamins that accelerated the growth of the tissues in general and of the spermatocytes and oocytes in particular. And for this reason only the royal caste and the young of the other castes were permitted to feed on this delicious vegetable food. The animal breeders of that age made a more spectacu- lar though less useful contribution when they persuaded our ancestors to adopt a number of singular beetles and flies and to feed and care for them till they developed exudate organs. Owing to the stimulating quality of their exudates these crea- tures, the termitophiles, added much variety to the previously somewhat monotonous social hormones. This quality, how- ever, made it necessary to restrict the number of termitophiles in the termitarium for the same reason that your society would find it advisable to restrict the cattle industry if your animal breeders had succeeded in producing breeds of cows that yielded highballs and cocktails instead of milk. It is, of course, one thing to have a policy and quite another to carry it out. The anarchistic elements in our late Cretaceous society were so numerous and so active that great difficulty was at first experienced in putting the theories of the biological re- formers into practise, but eventually, just before the Eocene Tertiary, a very effective method of dealing with any termite that attempted to depart from the standards of the most perfect social behavior was discovered and rigorously applied. The culprit was haled before the committee of biochemists who carefully weighed and examined him and stamped on his ab- domen the number of his colloidal molecules. This number was taken to signify that his conduct had reduced his social useful- ness to the amount of fat and proteids in his constitution. He was then led forth into the general assembly, dismembered and devoured by his fellows. I describe these mores reluctantly and very briefly, because I fear that they may shock your sensibilities, but some mention of them is essential to an appreciation of certain developments in our society within recent millennia. So perfectly socialized THE TERMITODOXA 119 have we now become that not infrequently a termite who has a slight indisposition, such as a sore throat or a headache or has developed some antisocial habit of thought or is merely grow- ing old, will voluntarily resort to the committee of biochemists and beg them to stamp him. He then walks forth with a radiant countenance, stridulating a refrain which is strangely like George Eliot's "O, may I join the choir invisible!" and forthwith becomes the fat and proteid "Bausteine" of the crowd that assembles on hearing the first notes of his petition. If you regard this as an even more horrible exhibition of our mores, because it adds suicide to murder and cannibalism, I can only insist that you are viewing the matter from a purely human standpoint. To the perfectly socialized termite nothing can be more blissful or exalted than feeling the precious fats and proteids which he has amassed with so much labor, melt- ing, without the slightest loss of their vital values, into the constitutions of his more vigorous and socially more efficient fellow beings. Now I beg you to note how satisfactory was our solution of the many problems with which all animals that become social are confronted. I need hardly emphasize the matter of nutri- tion, for you would hardly contend that animals that can digest rotten wood and mud, grow perennial crops of mushrooms on their excrement, domesticate strange animals to serve as ani- mated distilleries and digest not only one anothers' bodies but even one anothers' secretions, have anything to learn in diete- tics or food conservation. Our solution of the great problems of reproduction, notably those of eugenics, is if anything, even more admirable, for by confining reproduction to a special caste, by feeding it and the young of the other castes on a pecu- liarly vitaminous diet and by promptly and deftly eliminating all abnormalities, we have been able to secure a physically and mentally perfect race. You will appreciate the force of this statement when I tell you that in a recent census of the 236,498 individuals comprising the entire population of my termitar- ium, I found none that had hatched with more than the normal number of antennal joints or even with a misplaced macro- chseta. The only anomaly seen was one of no social signifi- cance, a slightly defective toenail in three workers. Kigid eugenics combined with rigid enforcement of the regulations requiring all antisocial, diseased and superannuated individuals promptly to join the choir invisible, at the same time solved the problems of ethics and hygiene, for we were thus enabled, so to speak, to ram virtue and health back into the germ-plasm 120 THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY where they belong. And since we thus compelled not only our workers and soldiers but even our kings and queens to be born virtuous and to continue so throughout life, the Midcretaceous wowser caste, finding nothing to do, automatically disappeared. The problem of social protection was solved by the creation of a small standing army of cool-headed, courageous soldiers, to be employed not in waging war but solely for defensive pur- poses, and the development on the part of the soldiers and workers of ability to construct powerful fortifications. It may be said that the formation of the soldier caste as well as the in- vention of our cement subway architecture — an architecture unsurpassed in magnitude, strength and beauty, considering the small stature of our laborers and the simple tools they employ — was due to the repeated failures, extending over many million years, of our politicians to form a league of nations with our deadly enemies, the ants. After a recent review of the army and an inspection of the fortifications of my termi- tarium I agree with several of the kings of the present dynasty who believed that we ought really to be very grateful to our archenemies for their undying animosity. Such was our society at the beginning of the Eocene, and such with slight improvements in detail, it has remained for the past fifty million years, living and working with perfect smoothness, as if on carefully lubricated ball-bearings. Nor does it, like human society, live and work for itself alone, but with a view to the increase and maintenance of other types of life on the planet. On our activities depend the rapid decom- position of the dead vegetation and the rapid formation of the vegetable mould of the tropics. We are so numerous and our operations of such scope that we are a very important factor in accelerating the growth of all the vegetation, not only of the dry savannahs and pampas but even of huge rain-forests like those of the Congo, the Amazon and the East Indies. And when you stop to consider that the animal and human life of the tropics absolutely depends on this vegetation you will not take too seriously the reports of our detractors who are for- ever calling attention to our destructive activities. One author, I am told, asserts that certain South American nations can never acquire any culture because the termites so quickly eat up all their libraries, and another gives an account of a gentle- man in India who went to bed full of whiskey and soda and awoke in the morning stark naked, because the termites had eaten up his pyjamas. How very unfair to dwell on the loss of a few books and a suit of pyjamas and not even to mention THE TERMITODOXA 121 our beneficent and untiring participation in one of the most important biocoenoses! You will pardon me if after this hasty sketch of our history I am emboldened to make a few remarks about your society, and in what I say you will, I hope, make due allowance both for the meagerness of my sources of information and the limita- tions of my understanding. I must confess that to me your society wears a strangely immature and at the same time senile aspect, the appearance, in fact, of a chimera, composed of the parts of an infant and those of a white-haired octogenarian. Although your species has been in existence little more than one hundredth of the time covered by our evolution, you are nevertheless such huge and gifted animals, that it is surprising to find you in so imperfect a stage of socialization. And although every individual in your society seems to crave social integration with his fellows, it seems to be extremely difficult to persuade him to abate one tittle of all his natural desires and appetites, and every individual resists to the utmost any pro- found specialization of his structure and functions such as would seem to be demanded by the principle of the division of labor in any perfect society. Hence all the attempts which your society is continually making to form classes or castes are purely superficial and such as depend on the accumulation and transmission of property, and on vocation. And owing to the absence of eugenics and birth-control and to your habit of fostering all weak and inefficient individuals, there is not even the dubious and slow-working apparatus of natural selec- tion to provide for the organic fixation of castes through heredity. So immature is your society in these respects that it might be described as a lot of cave-men and cave-women play- ing at having a perpetual pink tea or Kaffeeklatsch. But the senile aspect of your society impresses me as even more extraordinary, because our society — and the same is true of that of all other social insects — is perennially youthful and vigorous, owing to our speedy elimination of the old and infirm. And this brings me to a matter that interests me greatly and one on which I hope we shall have much further correspond- ence. To be explicit, it seems that though your society has no true caste system, it is, nevertheless, divided into what might be called three spurious castes, the young, the mature and the aged. These, of course, resemble our castes only in number and in consisting of individuals of both sexes. They are pecu- liar in being rather poorly defined, temporary portions of the life-cycle, so that a single individual may belong to all of them 122 THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY in succession, and in the fact that only one of them, comprising the mature individuals, is of any great economic value to society and therefore actually functions as the host of the two others, which are, biologically speaking, parasitic. To avoid shocking your human sensibilities, I am willing to admit that both these castes may be worth all the care that is bestowed on them, the young on account of their promise and the old on account of past services. And I will even admit the considerable social value of the young and the old as stimuli adapted to call forth the affection of the mature individuals. But, writing as one animal to another, I confess that I am unable to understand why you place the control of your society so completely in the hands of your aged caste. Your society is actually dominated by the superannuated, by old priests, old pedagogues, old poli- ticians and no end of old wowsers of both sexes who are forever suppressing or regulating everything from the observance of the Sabbath and the wearing of feathers on hats to the licking of postage stamps and the grievances and tribulations of stray tom-cats. I notice that your educators, psychologists and statisticians have much to say on human longevity, and you seem all to crave for nothing so much as an inordinate protraction of your egos. Psychologically, this is, of course, merely another manifesta- tion of your fundamentally unsocial and individualistic appe- tites. Your writers make much of your long infancy, child- hood and adolescence as being very conducive to educability and socialization, and this is doubtless true, but the fact seems to be overlooked that the great lengthening of the initial phases of your life-cycle is also attended by a grave danger, for it also increases the dependence of the young on the adult and aged elements of society, especially on the parents, and this means intensifying what the Freudian psychologists call the father and mother complexes and therefore also an increased sub- servience to authority, a cult of the conservative, the stable and the senile. The deplorable effects of intensifying these com- plexes have long been only too evident in your various religious systems and are already beginning to show in the all too ready acceptance on the part of your society of the visionless policies and confused and hesitating methods of administration of your statesmen. Unless I am much mistaken this matter of the domination of the old in your society deserves careful investigation. Un- fortunately very little seems to be known about senility. In our society it can not be investigated, because we do not THE TERMITODOXA 123 permit it to exist, and in your society it is said to be very poorly understood, because no one is interested in it till he actually reaches it and then he no longer has the ability or the time to investigate it. When the social significance of this stage in the human life-cycle comes to be more thoroughly appreciated some of your young biologists and psychologists will make it a subject of exhaustive investigation and will discover the secret of its ominous and persistent domination. It will probably be found that many of your aged are of no economic importance whatever, and that the activities of many others may even be mildly helpful or beneficial, but you will find, as we found in the Midcretaceous, a small percentage, powerful and pernicious out of all proportion to their numbers, who are directly respon- sible for the deplorable inertia of your institutions, especially of your churches, universities and political bodies. These old individuals combine with a surprising physical vigor, a certain sadistic obstinacy which consecrates itself to obstructing, cir- cumventing, suppressing or destroying not only everything young or new, but everything any other old individual in their environment may suggest. The eminent physician who recom- mended chloroform probably had this type of ol d man in mind. Certain economic entomologists have advocated some more vigorous insecticide, such as hydrocyanic acid gas. This is, however, a matter concerning which it might be better to defer recommendation till the physiology, psychology and ethology of the superannuated have been more thoroughly investigated. It has sometimes occurred to me that your social problem may be quite insoluble — that when your troglodyte ancestors first expanded the family and clan into society they were already too long-lived, too " tough " and too specialized mentally and physically ever to develop the fine adjustments demanded by an ideal social organization. I feel certain, nevertheless, that you could form a much better society than the present if you could be convinced that your further progress depends on solving the fundamental, preliminary problems of nutrition, reproduction and social defence, which our ancestors so suc- cessfully solved in the late Cretaceous. These problems are, of course, extremely complicated in your society. Under nutri- tion you would have to include raw materials and fuel, i. e., food for your factories and furnaces as well as food for your bodies. Your problems of reproduction comprise not only those of your own species but of all your domesticated animals and plants, and your social defence problems embrace not only protection from the enemies of your own species (military science) but 124 THE SCIENTIFIC MONTHLY from the innumerable other organic species which attack your domesticated animals and plants as well as your own bodies (hygiene, parasitology, animal and plant pathology, economic entomology). Like our ancestors you will certainly find that these problems can be solved only by the biologists — taking the word "biologists" in its very broadest sense, to include also the psychologists and anthropologists — and that till they have put their best efforts into the solution your theologians, phi- losophers, jurists and politicians will continue to add to the existing confusion of your social organization. It is my opinion, therefore, that if you will only increase your biological investigators a hundred fold, put them in positions of trust and responsibility much more often and before they are too old, and pay them at least as well as you are paying your plumbers and bricklayers, you may look forward to making as much social progress in the next three centuries as you have made since the Pleistocene. That some such opinion may also be entertained by some of your statesmen sometime before the end of the present geological age, is the sincere wish of Yours truly, Wee-Wee, 43d Neotenic King, of the 8429th Dynasty of the Bellicose Termites. On reperusing this letter before deciding, after many mis- givings, to read it to so serious a body of naturalists, I notice a great number of inaccuracies and exaggerations, attributable, no doubt, to his majesty's misinterpretation of his own and very superficial acquaintance with our society. His remarks on old age strike me as particularly inept and offensive. He seems not to be aware of the fact that at least a few of our old men have almost attained to the idealism of the superannuated termite, a fact attested by such Freudian confessions as the following, taken from a letter recently received by one of my colleagues from a gentleman in New Hampshire: I do not understand how it is that an insect so small as to be invisible is able to worry my dog and also at times sharply to bite myself. A vet. friend of mine in Boston advised lard and kerosene for the dog. This seemed to check them for a time, but what I need is extermination, for I am in my eighty-fourth year.